Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Off the Wall 2/9/15

You may have noticed the advertisements for Raksha Bandhan specials last week. Over the last weekend Raksha Bandhan was celebrated by the Hindu community specifically although it is also a many non-Hindu Fijians of Indian descent also celebrate the occasion.

Last weekend, as is her practice every year, my second sister Sharon, tied a rakhi on my hand and then lovingly stuffed a gulab jamun sweet in my mouth. She organised my daughter and niece to do the same (literally) to their brother and cousin (my son and nephew). My sister and I promised that despite our occasional disagreements and explosive discussions, we will care for each other, spiritually, emotionally and physically.

Raksha Bandhan honours the sacred bonds between brothers and sisters. Over many centuries, the rakhi (from Sanskrit, “the tie or knot of affection”) has evolved from simple, handspun threads into bangles adorned in jewels, crystals, cartoon characters and even political figures. Typically, today, women present a rakhi to men and, in return, the men promise to protect the women who offer them a bracelet. Although usually associated with Hinduism, Raksha Banhan has reached a wider cultural status—often celebrated by Jains, Sikhs and even some Muslims across India, Mauritus, parts of Nepal and Pakistan.

A sister ties a colourful bracelet, called a rakhi, around her brother’s right wrist. This represents her love and prayers for her brother. It means that she will always pray that God will keep her brother safe. In return, the brother promises to look after his sister and protect her throughout her life. He gives his sister a gift of money or jewellery.  They give each other sweets to eat.

The word raksha means ‘protection’ and bandhan means ‘to tie’. Raksha Bandhan is a festival that strengthens family ties. Many women send rakhis to brothers who live far away. If a sister has no brother, she will give a rakhi to a cousin, or to a friend, as long as he is prepared to make the same life-long commitment. A number of my female cousins used to visit me to tie a rakhi on my hand, although now that they live overseas, they tend to send me an e-rakhi via facebook. The sentiments expressed and commitments made remain.

A number of stories explain how this popular festival began. One tells of a fierce war between good and evil, when the demon king, Bali, fought Indra, king of the gods. Indra was driven out of his kingdom and feared that he might be beaten. His wife, Indrani, prayed for help. Lord Vishnu gave her a silk bracelet to tie around Indra’s wrist. She was promised that it would keep him safe. The promise came true. When Indra and Bali fought again, the bracelet protected Indra. The demons were overcome and Indra won his kingdom back.

According to one legendary narrative, when Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 BCE, Roxana (or Roshanak), his wife sent a sacred thread to Porus, asking him not to harm her husband in battle. In accordance with tradition, Porus, the king of Kaikeya kingdom, gave full respect to the rakhi. On the battlefield, when Porus was about to deliver a final blow to Alexander, he saw the rakhi on his own wrist and restrained himself from attacking Alexander personally.

Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel Laureate for literature, invoked Raksha Bandhan and Rakhi, as concepts to inspire love, respect and a vow of mutual protection between Hindus and Muslims during India's colonial era. He later started Rakhi Mahotsavas as a symbol of Bengal unity, and as a larger community festival of harmony. In parts of West Bengal, his tradition continues as people tie Rakhis to their neighbours and close friends.

In India today, some suggest that Raksha Bandhan has become a secular festival, which in turn opens up the celebration to be an opportunity to express renewed love between siblings and sometimes between others who share a bond of brotherhood.

“Given that the pretty ornamental thread is an affirmation of a sister's love for her brother, the character of the festival is inclusive,” wrote Mohammed Wajihuddin of The Times of India, whose article quotes liberal Muslims and a Muslim cleric who recognised the inclusive character of the celebration. 

Raksha Bandhan, has transcended religious barriers. Here in Fiji perhaps it can also transcend ethnic and cultural barriers as an occasion to be thankful for family ties and pray for God’s blessing and protection upon those who are close to you.

Even Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13)

One of my favourite Christian songs with Brother and Sister in the lyrics is known as the “Servant Song”:

Brother, sister, let me serve you; let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.

We are pilgrims on a journey, and companions on the road;
we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christlight for you in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh I'll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow, till we've seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony,
born of all we've known together of Christ's love and agony.

Brother, sister, let me serve you; let me be as Christ to you;
pray that l may have the grace to let you be my servant too.

May we all find time to celebrate the bonds of love which bind us and commit to strengthening those ties which may have loosened over time.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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